A tiny, 10-table restaurant serving home-style Middle Eastern food has been garnering rave reviews from London’s toughest critics since it opened in 2012. This week, Honey & Co. won an even bigger prize: a six-figure book deal for its owners.
Nine publishers fought recently for the rights to Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer’s first cookbook. Saltyard Books eventually won the bidding war, offering the married couple an undisclosed amount (but what their agent calls “mid six-figures”) for a two-book deal: their memoir—which will include their Middle Eastern recipes—and then a baking cookbook.
Their literary agent, Luigi Bonomi, says that although cookbook sales are resilient even in tough times, six-figure deals are still rare: “During a recession, people like to eat, so cookbooks are doing incredibly well at the moment, but it’s pretty unusual to do a deal like this for first-time authors.”
“We never expected this,” said Srulovich. “We didn’t go into this to get rich.”
In fact, what makes Honey & Co. so beloved among its customers is the lack of pretension in the haimish setting and the fact that the owners never put on airs about themselves or their food. “When we used to cook at home, this would be the food you would come to us and eat at our table,” said Packer. “It’s not fine dining; it’s messy and comfortable. Our restaurant kitchen here is like a shoebox, but we touch and taste everything.”
The couple, both Israeli-born and raised, met 10 years ago at Joya, an Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv, where they both worked. But they say much of their inspiration for Honey & Co. comes from a different restaurant: Orna and Ella, a Tel Aviv institution where Srulovich also worked and where Packer frequently ate. “It’s very honest, approachable food, similar to our place,” said Srulovich.
They also learned a lot from famed Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi; they worked for him in London for about five years before striking out on their own. Packer was head of pastry at the eponymous restaurant Ottolenghi before becoming executive chef and overseeing the development of another of the chef’s restaurants, Nopi.
“It helped me see all the stages of opening a restaurant,” said Packer. “It was nice to do it with someone else’s money first! Ottolenghi remains a good friend. We grew a lot with them—and a lot after.”
Since it opened last June, Honey & Co., located in Fitzrovia, has earned high praise from London’s top three restaurant critics, including A.A. Gill, known for his snarky reviews in the Sunday Times. “It’s everything you want in a restaurant,” Gill wrote. “The food is part of it, but it is the other part, the intangible part, that moves you to speechless gratitude.”
The intangible aspect Gill was so taken by has to do with the restaurant’s atmosphere. With just 10 tables, it’s hectic and intimate all at the same time. What won Gill over was the soulful embrace with which Packer and Srulovich warmly serve up each dish. Packer says it’s something the staff takes very seriously: “If you’ve been here three times, you’ll get a hug. Not everyone likes it, but it’s genuine.”
Diners do seem to concur. Our interview was frequently interrupted by regulars stopping to share their news with the couple. Honey & Co. is a neighborhood place, drawing locals in every day from breakfast through dinner, for a cup of black cardamom coffee or rose-and-cinnamon tea with a slice of one of the seven freshly baked cakes sitting in the window, the smell of butter and pastry wafting up from the kitchen. The day we met, the pistachio cake with roasted plums was the best-seller.
Beyond their hospitality—they still answer the phone themselves—Srulovich and Packer are hailed for their no-gimmick home-cooking and simple decor. The menu is a mix of Middle Eastern mezze and main courses, most of it very traditional.
“There’s no concept. These are the flavors we’re drawn to, that we want to cook,” Srulovich explained. “Ninety percent of our food is all very simple. There’s a lot of care, but there’s no innovation.” The menu changes monthly and includes dishes like slow-cooked lamb with plums and rose petals, spiced pumpkin puree, and Yemeni-style falafel with cumin and cardamom.
The couple is vehemently inclusive in calling the restaurant’s food Middle Eastern rather than strictly Israeli. “Israel is a cacophony of people,” said Packer. “Everyone comes from a wide diaspora, and then there’s the locals: the Druze and the Christian Arabs and the Muslim Arabs and so on. Everyone eats differently. So, it’s food from the Middle East, and occasionally we give a nod to places further afield, the Balkans or Greece, Turkey or Georgia.”
They use feta, kadaif (classic Albanian shredded phyllo dough), and Greek honey in a cheesecake. Another dessert is made of whipped white chocolate, olive oil, and pine nuts. If the combinations sound uber-gourmet, they’re rooted in reality. “This is the food we eat at home,” said Packer. “It’s the food we cook for each other.”
It’s the owners’ direct connection with the cooking and their customers that keeps regulars coming back. It’s also what makes Packer and Srulovich wary of growing too big too fast. They stay awake nights worried that those who are lured by great reviews will be disappointed with their casual approach. “We tell them on the phone, don’t expect too much,” said Packer. “You’re gonna sit in a tiny, cramped place which is very hectic, and if you’re coming with the expectation of a big London restaurant, this is not it. We don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
They still take the laundry home every night and only recently left the restaurant for one day during a research trip to Paris. Honey & Co. is closed on Sundays, but six days a week work begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends around 11:30 p.m. for the couple; they try to give each other a few hours off once a week. And they say they’re too busy running the restaurant, and now writing the cookbook, to think about expanding. Packer and Srulovich built Honey & Co. with their own funds and are hesitant to hand over control. In fact, they’re too busy just making sure the shelves are stocked. The decor is clean, white walls with a set of shelves, the tableau for Packer’s homemade jams—everything from apricot to black fig.
“We don’t really make a profit on them,” Packer said of the jams. Srulovich chimed in: “We do them in tiny, tiny batches so they’re very labor-intensive,” he said, noting that for every pot of jam they sell, they lose about $5. “Every time we sell too many I have a heart attack,” Packer teased, “because the shelves are empty and I have to run and make more jam!”
Srulovich reassured her that, thanks to their book contract, soon they won’t have to worry: “When we have the books on the shelves,” he said, “we won’t need to make so much jam!”
Mahleb shortbread, from Honey & Co.
We make these shortbreads to resemble traditional Ma’amool cookies but use mahleb (a spice ground from cherry stones) to add a little something different. The lovely shape is created by tiny crimpers; without them you can just use your fingertips and pinch them into a star shape. They are nice dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
3 1/2 oz. confectioner’s sugar
7 oz. butter
10 oz. plain flour
1 tsp. ground mahleb powder (can be purchased from Middle Eastern groceries)
zest of 1 lemon
pinch of salt
Lightly cream the confectioner’s sugar and butter in an electric mixer (with a paddle attachment, if you have one), or you can use a wide spoon if working it by hand. The butter and sugar should be combined together to a soft paste, then add the remaining ingredients and mix until just combined.
Roll them into little balls (1 oz. each) and pinch with the crimpers or your fingertips.
Bake in the center of a medium heat oven (325 degrees) for 15 minutes, until light golden.
Amy Guttman is a multimedia journalist who has written and reported for CBS News, NPR, Monocle, Associated Press, and others. She is based in London.